The Wright Flyer began to acquire its status of national treasure in the 1920s with the growing feud between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian Institution. The dispute revolved around the Smithsonian's misleading public display of the aeronautical achievements of its former Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, and the Institution's reluctance to properly credit the Wright brothers as the true inventors of the airplane. The dispute was not resolved until the early1940s, and the Flyer was not given to the Smithsonian until 1948, after Orville's death.
Roots Of Distrust
The roots of the rift between the Wrights and the Smithsonian began in 1910, when then Smithsonian Secretary Charles Walcott (Langley died in 1906) refused the Wrights' offer of donation of the 1903 Wright Flyer, requesting instead a current Wright aircraft. Walcott intended to display the later Wright airplane with aeronautical artifacts of Langley, suggesting a connection between Langley's work and the Wright achievement. The Wrights' suspicions were aroused.
From left, Walcott, Wilbur, Alexander Graham Bell, and Orville.
Langley's successful unpiloted 1896 model Aerodrome No. 5 had a wingspan of 14 feet and was powered by a small steam engine. It made a few true flights, but it was a dead-end design that had no chance of success as a full-size piloted aircraft.
Langley's successful unpiloted model Aerodrome No. 5 being launched from catapult, 1896.
Glenn Curtiss and the Langley Aerodrome.
Orville Wright's concerns deepened in 1914 (Wilbur died in 1912) when the Smithsonian contracted aeronautical experimenter and aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss to rebuild Langley's unsuccessful 1903 full-size airplane, the Great Aerodrome, which crashed for the second time just nine days before the Wrights' success at Kitty Hawk.

Immersed in bitter patent infringement litigation with the Wrights for years, Curtiss recognized that the Smithsonian's desire to tout the aeronautical achievements of Langley could serve his own interests. A partnership was formed and the Smithsonian issued a $2,000 contract to Curtiss to rebuild and test the Langley Aerodrome.

Glenn Curtiss
Langley's Great Aerodrome collapses upon itself at takeoff on December 8, 1903.
''Capable of Flight''
After completely rebuilding the Langley Aerodrome with extensive modifications and a different engine, Curtiss did manage to make brief, straight-line hops with it. The aircraft was then returned to the Smithsonian, restored to its failed 1903 configuration, and displayed with a label stating that it was the "first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight." Orville was outraged.
Curtiss gets the highly modified Langley Aerodrome briefly airborne in 1914. By this point it could hardly be considered the same airplane.